Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

On the Record…

Posted on | March 22, 2012 | 8 Comments

Dave Bryant’s interview with me appears in today’s Morning Star. You can read it online right here but I’d recommend that you also head out and buy it, it is one of the last true left wing papers in distribution and often struggles to maintain its existence. It’s a lovely piece by Dave which captures the spirit and ethos of Poetry Unplugged. However, word limits and editorial craftiness have rendered one of the final paragraphs a little problematically for me. Here’s the paragraph quoted in full:

“The kind of elitism I think does exist is in mainstream poetry – or what is called ‘mainstream poetry,’ which is written by TS Eliot Prize nominees and Poetry Review regulars, but read by very few people. Their response to the government cuts, the Occupy movement and the summer riots has been nothing, but then none of it touched them. The only vocalisation you get is from Carol Ann Duffy doing a poem about Arts Council cuts, rather than about the people who handed the cuts down to the Arts Council,” he continues disgustedly.

Now, I think a valid point is being made here but people could take the wrong impression. Firstly, I didn’t add anything “disgustedly” (this was the work of a sub editor rather than the author), that comment implies something far stronger than what I actually feel. I’m not disgusted with Carol Ann Duffy for writing a poem referencing many organisations that did not succeed in securing National Portfolio funding from ACE. If anything, Duffy’s laureateship has been the most radical in many ways. Not only should we not lose sight of her being the first woman in the post, we should also make note that she has not written any sycophantic odes to the Royal Family, instead choosing to measure the pulse of the nation with poems about the Stephen Lawrence murder and the death of Tariq Jahan during the English riots.

However I do stand by my assertion that mainstream poetry has not done anything to address the Occupy movement or the subjective, class aspects of the London Riots. We should take the laudable withdrawals of Alice Oswald and John Kinsella from the Aurum supported TS Eliot prize as handwashing, denunciatory gestures rather than overt, proactive strikes against the forces of free market capitalism. We heard more noise from mainstream poets in support of Aurum’s modest contribution to the TS Eliot Prizes administration costs. We heard more protest from mainstream poets about the non inclusion of some literary organisations for National Portfolio funding than against the coalition government that cut the public money available to the arts. Many acted as if poetry itself was under threat if the TS Eliot prize went under (no one seems to be looking at what the future of Valerie Eliot’s stipend, tied to the commercial success of the musical Cats, may be).

Mainstream poetry is mainly concerned about its own survival. This is not the same as the survival of poetry itself. Many statements about the declining health of poetry rely on the unexamined and snobbish assumption that hip hop isn’t poetry. “Mainstream Poetry” as a category is a slippery fish to handle and my offhand comments about the Poetry Review and the TS Eliot Prize don’t help. Poets I admire such as Ian Duhig and Annie Freud are TS Eliot nominees. My own best man, Nii Parkes and fellow Flipped Eye poet Malika Booker have had poems published in the Poetry Review. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. Mainstream poetry is an Islingtonian, dinner party mentality that permeates the social structures and stylisitic tropes that prop up the triad of literary prize, mainstream publisher and Guardian columnist.

Mainstream poets can enjoy relatively high profiles despite the fact that Spoken Word performers outsell them considerably with the CDs and pamphlets that they shift at gigs. Mainstream poetry is mainly white and middle/upper class, no matter how loudly it heralds the occasional exception to the rule. Poets from non white or working class backgrounds often have to ventriloquise the rhetorical aspects of the mainstream in order to gain mainstream recognition. In a recent speech to the Oxbridge bods, Tim Wells compared this practice to English actors that play characters with American accents on American films and TV shows.

Mainstream poetry eschews overt political expression, portraying poetry as something that transcends the political and connects to the timeless universality of the human condition—as all poetries that channel ruling ideologies are wont to do. Poets that dare to say something are often cattily chastised for their lack of sophistication in the hatchet-job roundups that bookend mainstream poetry quarterlies ( see Todd Swift’s review of Luke Wright’s The Vile Ascent of Lucian Gore in the Poetry Review).

I do not for a second feel that the kind of poetry that I attack in this article should be hidden away or supplanted. I wish all the best to the TS Eliot Prize, the poets that wish to be nominated and those that do not. All I really want to banish is the idea that these are representative of poetry and, by implication, the best of poetry as a whole. Then we may simply shrug at the all white shortlist, or the occasional all male shortlist such as last year’s Forward Prize—as long as those involved don’t utter the usual lines about how they honestly tried to simply choose the best collection.


8 Responses to “On the Record…”

  1. Jon Stone
    March 23rd, 2012 @ 5:07 am

    I posted this on an FB thread and then realised it’s more of a response to this post than what’s being said there:

    “Mainstream poetry is mainly white and middle/upper class, no matter how loudly it heralds the occasional exception to the rule.”

    This if, of course, true, and in the rest of Niall’s post he makes great points. But I am kind of wary of over-simplifying the problem, as I’m sure Niall is. I’m white, and at the lower end of middle class, and while that undoubtedly makes it easier for me to fit the mainstream template, it doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say, and it doesn’t mean poetic techniques and voices associated with the mainstream are necessarily born of an aversion to challenging the status quo.

    In particular, I don’t like the implied association that’s made (not by Niall or Anthony) between political conscience and the polemic mode. I have a simple test – can it be said just as well, and just as fiercely, in a prosaic blog post or in a speech over a youtube video? – which most of my strongest political sentiments fail to pass, and so I don’t put them down as poems. I haven’t read the Swift review of Wright in PR, but it’s surely possibly it falls foul of not making any particularly well thought out political point; just rhymifies Tory-bashing. Political activism is always facing the danger (and the reality) of constantly patting itself on the back for being angry and righteous, and failing in its purpose, which is to enact change through democratic debate. If you’re not nudging people towards new kinds of action and thinking – if you’re telling people who already agree with you exactly what they like to hear – then what’s the point?

    That’s not to say, of course, that the mainstream doesn’t exclude voices which are not, perhaps, overtly activist, but merely different. It does. It excludes what it doesn’t understand, and it doesn’t understand much beyond a certain family of styles. That said, when Niall says:

    “Poets from non white or working class backgrounds often have to ventriloquise the rhetorical aspects of the mainstream in order to gain mainstream recognition.”

    I don’t entirely agree. I don’t entirely agree because it’s very hard to parse ventriloquism form learning how to use certain effects. My experience of learning poetry certainly involved – and still involves – ventriloquism, and I think it would be wrong to characterise mainstream voices as ones which the white and middle class find easier to adopt. When I look back at what I started writing, there was pseudo-rap, bouncy iambic rhymes, polemic, imploring, addresses to power – lots of things far closer to some of the spoken word scene. If I’ve moved away from that now to something that looks a lot more like what we’d call ‘mainstream’, it’s because I’ve spent a long time trying to learn certain techniques and effects which I consider necessary to articulate what I need to articulate.

    So I guess in all that rambling, what I’m trying to say is that yes, what we call the ‘mainstream’ is partly a confluence of white, middle class power. But it would be considerably weaker if it also weren’t a convincing middle ground between many different ideas of what poetry should do, between elitism and populism, high art and social action. I think if you were to remove it entirely, poetry would genuinely be less diverse. It simply needs to be made more porous.

  2. niallosullivan
    March 23rd, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    Obviously, I’m not implying that there’s anything wrong with being white and middle class, not that white middle class poets should pretend to be anything but that. It would also be fair to point out that most of Britain is white and middle class so there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a mainstream that reflects this. However there is a crossing over point that seems to assume that the mainstream represents the barometer of objective quality and the full scope of poetry. As said above, it is this assumption that I seek to put an end to rather than the mainstream itself.

    You are also right to critically examine my points about ventriloquism, it’s somewhere where we have to be very careful. I abhor the kind of talk about whites trying to talk like blacks and vice versa. This kind of talk normally comes from ignorance of how class overlaps racial identity. The kind if ventriloquism I speak of is a lot more subtle than that.

    A good example of the kind of assimilation/ventriloquism could be the kind of minority poetry that often appears in PR and other mainstream magazines. We all know the holiday epiphany poem, the one where the often white and well off poet discovers something profound about themselves while in an exotic locale. Minority poetry that makes it into the mainstream journals also has a holiday aspect to it, be it a recollection of their homeland or the memories of their parents. Otherwise it is perhaps a description of aspects of their life that feel exotic to the non minority reader. There is almost a sense of the access into the life of the minority poet as a kind of holiday. The tone of the poem itself is passive rather than polemical. This is not to say that the minority poet themselves has not written polemical work, just that the work that is accepted from them for the journal is more in the passive vein.

    I don’t want to get sidetracked into a Todd Swift bashing session so I won’t go into it too much. I’ll just say that the review didn’t really say much at all other than the argument about Tories being an easy target in a fanciful way. But Todd is an easy target himself so I’ll leave it at that. Instead I’ll move onto the “easy target” sensibility itself. There is a fetishism for novelty and originality (the latter is often aimed at, the former is usually the outcome) that is not necessarily found within the Spoken Word scene. Songs, refrains and well known phrases become moments for audience inclusion and the individual voice of the poet will often bring in participation from the audience. Mainstream poetry is all about the audience as a passive receiver, especially to the point where the poet often instructs the audience not to applaud until the very end. Inclusive tropes and turns of phrase are dismissed as cliche.

    Originality and individualism are as much a part of capitalism and consumerism as they are a part of mainstream poetry and this is why I’m not that surprised to find a lack of engagement with the current social movements within it. It channels the university lecture where a few short questions are allowed at the end rather than the boisterous trade union gathering or the revivalist church service.

  3. Jon Stone
    March 23rd, 2012 @ 7:32 am

    Copying across again:

    Re. the ‘fetishism for novelty and originality’. My feeling about well-known phrases or refrains is that while they may be inclusive of, figuratively, the people at the centre of the room, they exclude those at the fringes. I guess I’m thinking of club nights where they play all the popular tunes to get people singing along. That’s fine, except if you’re not into the popular stuff. There are elitists and those who positively seek to set themselves apart, but there are other people who are just naturally individualistic, or otherwise don’t see themselves as included.

    I’m also reminded of Ashna Sarkar declaring that she’s *not* with the 99% because she sees that kind of populism as embracing mainstream casual racism and sexism. I think she has a point. Lionising ‘the masses’ is not much better than seeking to exclude them. The University lecture model exists because some types of exchanges simply cannot be conducted in a clamour – the clamour favours those who shout the loudest, or whose views are the most straightforward and immediately appealing (again, to those in the centre of the room). The lecture is (theoretically) part of a long-term discourse, where exchanges take place over months or years, allowing room for long and developed replies.

    Maybe individualism is somewhat tied up with capitalism, but for me it’s always been a not-fitting-in thing, and I find the focus on originality more to be about (again, at least in theory) a more open-ended, unassuming inclusivity, one that doesn’t begin by subcategorising people and saying, “Right, we need typical poems by this social group, then this one, then this one, and by covering all the groups, we have included everybody.”

    If there is then a hesitance to respond to social movements, perhaps at least part of that hesitance is because it’s hard to speak the truth, particularly in more direct terms than simply by saying what’s on your mind. I support Occupy, and I defended the rioters, but I personally can’t find anything in my limited poetic arsenal that I think could help them (or help them more than I might be already by doing my own thing). The thinking behind the ‘easy target’ criticism is this: people who agree with you will applaud but think no differently about the problem you are identifying, but people who don’t will dismiss you as a stereotype-basher. You avoid the criticism by engaging politically in such a way as suggests courses of action or adjustments to ideals in your allies, and/or infiltrates the thinking of fence-sitters and the opposition. And that’s bloody difficult!

    I agree with your points about minority poet representation in the mainstream. Reminds me of that ‘African poems on the Underground’ series a while back, where every poem seemed to have to mention a tin shack or worrying the crops will fail, or something like that. The trouble is it’s minority poetry for a non-minority reader, and there seems to be little or no effort to engage the minority readership.

  4. niallosullivan
    March 23rd, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    I think that it’s good to put some distance between the individual and the outsider. There is something parardoxical in what I call the individual. An example of the individual could be a Justin Beiber concert. He is not addressing the thousands of screaming teenage girls as a group, his songs never refer to “girls”, they instead refer to each individual among the thousands as “girl”. Another example could be an X Factor audition, where thousands are part of the experience but the ultimate aim is for one to be the winner. Back to the Beiber example, this goes all the way back to protestant Christianity and the birth of the idea of the individual’s relation to God. This is how corporations operate, advertsand brands do not speak to groups, they speak to individuals, even when they evoke images of the assembled masses for effect.

    Folk cultures tend to push against this dynamic, they emphasise links and bonds between communities though dance, music, rhetoric and entertainment.

    It should be added that the experiences that make a lot of us feel like outsiders (nightclubs, the more corporate end of the festival spectrum) are often very corporate and individualistic in their makeup, they have a top down aspect (you can only listen to music from major record labels and their pseud I Indie subsidiaries rather than make your own collective music, you can only drink the mass produced beveraged rather than something a local person brings in to share) about them rather than being a genuine ground up social dynamic.

  5. Todd Swift
    March 25th, 2012 @ 5:17 am

    I find it dishonest to say I cattily chastised Luke Wright’s pamphlet. I wrote:

    Luke Wright, too, is a performance poet, but this time one in the BBC Big Leagues. His pamphlet from (no joke) Nasty Little Press features a bio note to end all such notes with the claim that Wright is “poet-in-residence on Radio 4’s Saturday Live, regularly broadcasting to over two million people”. Two million people who never buy poetry pamphlets, it is to be said, lamentably. Still, that’s an audience to conjure with. His long poem, ‘The Vile Ascent of Lucien Gore And What The People Did’ is artfully stage-managed cod-Byron by way of Auden, written in “ottava rima” and aimed at Politicians with a capital P. It should certainly be put in a time capsule, as it is of the moment, as this shows:

    They hacked at local budgets and they shattered
    the public arts. They throttled Northern towns.
    They said disabled children were a matter
    for their parents. Raised premiums on gowns
    and mortarboards. Supped champers as they battered
    the SureStart scheme and shut job centres down.
    Let multinationals feast on comprehensives
    slashed corporate tax at rates that were offensive.

    It isn’t quite Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, is it? Nonetheless, such on-the-nose writing hits all the targets, a quasi-poetical tour-de-force of blunt force rima.

  6. niallosullivan
    March 25th, 2012 @ 6:15 am

    Perhaps I’m being a little over sensitive Todd, but there does seem to be an insinuatory tone throughout the article.. “aimed at politicians with a capital P” seems to be dismissive of the directness of Luke’s approach, the easy target argument John and I discuss in the comments. Other terms such as “pseudo poetical” and “cod Byron” also appear to hint at a lack of authenticity and affectation. Even your comments about the Saturday Live audience seem to be made with a sly glance to the gallery. If I have misunderstood you then I apologise for doing so, though I feel that the knowing asides that pepper the review feel like they’re written as a nod to a select few rather than through a desire to be generally understood.

    However it is unfair to mention your name without mentioning anyone else’s in this blog entry, which some could take to be an intimation that you embody all that is attacked within it. I don’t view you as a repressive bastion of the mainstream and hope noone would take that as a given after reading the article.

  7. Poetry On Trial: 2. “Poetry and Tribalism” by Jon Stone |
    April 15th, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    […] world”, self-evidently reducing ‘the poetry world’ to the mainstream only. Niall O’Sullivan, host of Poetry Unplugged, is judicious in remarking that he bears no ill will towards the mainstream prize circuit ”as long as […]

  8. Poetry and Tribalism – Sidekick Books
    October 11th, 2016 @ 10:54 am

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